Is 'Cruelty-Free Knitting' the Future of Crafting?

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(Photos courtesy Janet Avila/String Theory)

For many discerning knitters, acrylic yarn just doesn’t measure up to the look and feel of more costly natural fibers. But some, like C.J. Arabia of Los Angeles, go a step further.

They don’t just care about what their yarn is made of; they want to know how the animal was treated.

“They don’t need a lot,” says Arabia, a Los Angeles resident who grew up on a farm and is passionate about ethical treatment the sheep that produce her yarn. “Just some space and some food and to not be tortured. I do love working with that stuff when I can afford it and I’m always happy to pay when it is available.”

The “ethical knitting” movement encompasses a variety of environmental concerns as well. One store owner aims to make wise choices with all of the products she stocks.

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Janet Avila, owner of String Theory Yarn Company in Glen Ellyn, Ill., focuses her store broadly on “yarns that make the world a better place.”

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“It can be anything from just being a natural fiber. It might be supporting hand-painted yarn because it’s supporting artists — or usually women — who do those things and so are women entrepreneurs,” Avila said. “My approach basically is to support the things that I think there should be more of in the world. I think when you buy something you’re making a statement. As a store owner, I can spend my money on things that I think are good for the world.”

Among them are socially responsible yarn, which supports women’s cooperatives; a yarn that provides educational opportunities in the countries where they are produced; environmentally friendly yarns where the sheep and mill are in the United States so the create a smaller carbon footprint; organic yarn, where sheep are raised organically and dye is produced without harsh chemicals; and local dyers who hand color wool and cotton.

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 “Most yarn could fill a passport — maybe it’s from Australia, shipped to China then the United States and then back and then over. It’s incredible,” she said. “But the sheep that are raised in the United States certainly I can vouch for.” 

Manufacturers she suggests include Dream in Color, Imperial Stock Ranch, Mountain Meadows, Peace Fleece, Classic Elite and Rowan.

Similarly, Sylvie Gagne, co-owner of Lettuce Knit in Toronto, carries yarn from a farm in Ontario. “I’ve been there,” she said. “I know how they treat the animals.”

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“It’s the same thing as ethical meat,” Gagne explained. She avoids products from companies that manufacture items in China because of concerns of animal cruelty there that have been reported over the years. Some of the large producers in places like Peru and Bolivia are open to having visitors who can meet the employees and see that they are happy and being paid fairly.

 The product is more expensive – some skeins can go as high as $70, Gagne said. “The belly of the animal is brushed to get the optimal fiber.”

 Of course, not all knitters have a preference for such products. Pearl Chin, who has owned Knitty City in Manhattan for nine years, said, “In the past, I tried to stock yarns that were ecologically good for the environment. It hasn’t played out that well.”

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Her customers were not interested in the muted colors that natural dye creates. “For my customers, the preference is for more intense, more vivid colors,” she said. “At the end of two months it was still there. I couldn’t sell it … we’re in New York City, it’s a different environment.”

But for crafters like Arabia, nothing is better. “We knit because it’s therapeutic and it feels good,” she said. “Knitting with these natural fibers from animals even feels better, so it’s just a win-win-win-win. The more natural you can get, it just feels good inside and outside. It feels good in your fingers and it feels good in your soul.”

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